Trips: Following the Beans to Peru and Back

Written by Cafe Campesino on Mar 1, 2007 in NEWSLETTER, Trips |

We often use the expression “follow the bean” here in the office when discussing the trail of paperwork associated with importing coffee, or the flow of funds, or production procedures. Our latest adventures in Peru provided remarkable context and new meaning to this phrase…

Tripp and Bill with the wonderful folks of Mazaronquiari, Rio Blanco (Parua)

We landed in Lima last month intent on “following the bean” into the Andes and out to the farms that surround San Martin de Pangoa, where CAC Pangoa, our trading partners in central Peru is headquartered. The first leg of the journey took us over the highest paved road in the world, rising right out of Lima to 4,818 meters (over 15,000 feet!) before winding our way down to arrive 10 hours later in San Martin. During this drive on one of Peru’s major arteries, we wound our way around several recent mudslides that still partially blocked the highway. We lunched beside a raging river while our friends from Pangoa pointed out the ferries that stand ready to take vehicles across the river whenever the bridge washes out. And we passed through a mud-ravaged village that was battered only days before by a slide that had killed 23 people, swept away possibly 60 other people, and destroyed numerous homes. All of this… before we had even turned off the main highway for the final hour on the bumpy unpaved road to Pangoa.

Months ago Ing. Esperanza Dionisio, our good friend and the extraordinary manager of CAC Pangoa, told us that our trip would fall during rainy season and questioned whether we really wanted to visit during that period. We didn’t give this much thought and told her rainy season wasn’t enough to dissuade us from our visit… after all, we had traveled to many countries in Africa and Central America where “rainy season” simply means that there is a possibility of rain. Ultimately, we learned that rainy season in Peru means it will, in fact, rain!

Everyone from CAC Pangoa pitches in on the road to Parua.

After a first day of orientation meetings with the Board of Directors of the cooperative and Pangoa’s exceptional staff, and a visit to Don Simon Flores’ farm to see his cacao groves and bee-keeping project, we planned to arise at 4:00 the following morning for the 40 km drive out to the indigenous community of Mazaronquiari, Rio Blanco (Parua). Only 40 km — why so early, right? Well, the next morning we awoke as scheduled but quickly heard the gentle murmur of rain hitting the tin roof of our hotel. We received a message from Esperanza to go back to bed and that we should be ready to try again at 7 am. By then, the rain had stopped, so off we went. The five of us (Kristin Russell of The Sentient Bean, Kelli Pearson, Tripp, Michael Cheney and me) and over twenty people from the Pangoa office and technical training team piled into two pickups for the trek. I quickly felt as if we were back in Georgia because this was the reddest clay mud I have ever seen. During the next seven hours we piled out of (and back into!) our trucks countless times to push, pull and heave the trucks up the road to the community of Parua. We also abandoned our trucks several times to walk across frighteningly temporary “bridges” (made of soil) that had been pushed into place to allow trucks to pass where recent landslides had wiped out the existing roads…all of which were situated on very narrow edges along the steep inclines of the region’s mountains. Once we had crossed over on foot, our brave drivers gunned their engines and piloted their empty trucks over the precarious mounds of dirt, after which which we jumped back in until the next obstacle presented itself. Truly a harrowing experience for all of us — for our drivers, just part of their job. Here we were – following the path of the bean — and what a difficult and treacherous path it was.

Bill and our friends from Sentient Bean, Kristin and Kelli, with CAC Pangoa's spectacular staff!

I must admit that more than once I wondered to myself, why are we here during rainy season? Then Tripp or Kristen or someone in our group said “Can you believe that the coffee has to travel down this road?”… and it made complete sense. Yes, this was inconvenient… but it was the perfect time to visit and really understand what it takes to get the coffee off the farm, down to the warehouse in Pangoa, over the Andes and down to the port of Lima to prepare it for the voyage through the Panama Canal to our warehouse. We were only inconvenienced by the rain and mud and landslides and precarious bridges, but for the folks who live here and work these fields and depend on the income that they generate from coffee to feed their family, this is their everyday reality. Listening to the laughter when we got stuck, watching everyone scramble for the best pushing position behind the truck, hearing that the only people who maintain these dirt roads are the people that live on the roads and they do so by hand; all of this reminded me that we can learn so much from our coffee-growing friends about community, attitude, and the real definition of hard work.

There are countless examples of the extraordinary “can-do” spirit that we witnessed during our short stay in Peru and we will attempt to share more of them during the coming months. For now, I just want to share a few of the many special things we heard and learned while hanging out with one of the best examples of a coffee producing cooperative that I have ever witnessed:

  • Raul, a farmer in San Juan and member of CAC Pangoa, told me: “Many people blame the land for their problems, we know that we are to blame for the land’s problems and we want to correct this.”
  • Once a month a member of the family is required to attend organic training sessions. When asked about what happens if a family doesn’t send someone to the training Percy Llantoy replied (with a puzzled look) that they would not do this because the training is free and they all want to improve their farms. He went on to say that often the farmers bring their children to the training sessions because the children have better reading and writing skills.
  • As Esperanza reviewed the benefits offered to cooperative members in addition to a fair price, she casually mentioned a retirement plan…. my hand shot up! “Wait Esperanza, back up! Did you say retirement plan?” She smiled and explained that the reforestation project was also designed to provide for farmers’ retirement through the planting of a variety of species of trees – some of which grow much faster than others. In ten years some can be selectively harvested if money is needed, others in 20 years and so on.
  • While talking to Rodrigo Ñahui, whose six hectare farm is called San Antonio, he asked me questions about FLO, the international organization based in Germany that regulates Fair Trade. He knew how the Fair Trade price guarantee worked and knew that we were paying higher than minimum prices. I asked where he had learned all this and he said, “The cooperative, of course.”

Every Fair Trade cooperative (including ours) could learn from Esperanza at Pangoa about effective internal communication. Time and time again we heard various members of the cooperative explaining the financial or administrative functions of their complex cooperative. This can only happen when great internal educational systems are developed.

Don Marcial, the former president of the cooperative who visited us last year in Americus, stated: “I almost quit growing coffee a few years ago because I couldn’t make a living. Now, with Fair Trade premiums, I can pay the tuition at school and other things. I am like a different person. We don’t have fancy clothes or things, but we can meet our basic needs.”

Tripp, Bill, CAC Pangoa Mgr Esperanza Dionisio with our gracious hosts Tefilo and Leonardo

In a closing meeting with Esperanza and staff, we reviewed the many projects that they are working on in addition to running a finely-tuned coffee program and making sure that the farmers receive Fair Trade prices. All of these programs highlight the added value that Fair Trade relationships bring to the farmers that are often difficult to quantify – but are critically important to the value represented by cooperative membership. Many of these programs are supported by coffee activists like Dean Cycon, who first introduced us to CAC Pangoa. Examples include their reforestation/retirement program, a scholarship program for children of coop members, women’s micro-credit program, honey packaging, hydro-electric facility, and the artisan crafts program. They are also exploring a roasted coffee project and eco-tourism project. We committed to begin supporting their reforestation program and the scholarship program, and to help spread word of these programs to other roasters who engage in Fair Trade relationships that extend beyond simply paying a fair price.

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